Durkheim's Account of the Importance of Rituals in Modern Society

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Durkheim’s account of the importance of rituals in modern society

Durkheim’s theories on ritual are an integral part of his work on religion, outlined in his book ‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life’. Rites are defined by Durkheim as ‘determined modes of action’ (Durkheim, 1915, pg. 36). They are ceremonies that are active expressions of particular beliefs or aspects of a religion. It is necessary to consider and assess the theories on religion before examining and assessing those on rites and ritual specifically. Durkheim studied Australian totem tribes in order to uncover the ‘elementary forms of religious life’ and to gain something of an insight into the origins and functions of religion. He believed that religions served a function; to maintain social cohesion and solidarity. However, he also theorised that with the increase in industrialisation and modernity, such traditional forms of religion would be replaced with nationalism and communism; which, he argued would have more or less the same functional effects as the traditional religions. As a positivist, Durkheim believed that the use of science in sociology involves studying ‘social facts’ (Giddens, 1993, pg. 707) and through studying society in the same way as one would the natural sciences, realities and truthful, valid knowledge could confidently be gained. His observations and method used for the totem tribes of Australia went some way to achieving this confident knowledge. However, some criticisms have been raised concerning the limitations of his sole use of the totem tribes in order to theorize about the function of religion and ritual; especially when it came to validating his theories on religion and social change and the rise of modernity. As an atheist, Durkheim sought for secular reasons for the existence of religion. He thought that religious belief arose from psychological and individual explanations. For example, ‘mistaken apprehensions of natural phenomena’ (see Cuff et al). However, he argued that because of the universal nature of religion and the fact that it has prevailed over time, religion cannot simply be cast off as ‘false’ (Durkheim, 1912, pg 37). As a functionalist, Durkheim argued that religion served to provide some form of function in society. His approach rejected individualism. He held that ‘society creates the individual, not the other way around’ (Cuff et al, 2006). Durkheim conceived the function of religion in society, as serving as a means of maintaining social solidarity. Members of a religious group of church, share a ‘common faith’ (Durkheim, 1912, pg. 44) and likewise share similar values and morals. Durkheim referred to this as the conscience collective and it was seen to create feelings of ‘moral unity’ in the society. (Durkheim, 1912 cited in Giddens, 1972, pg223). The benefit of these sentiments being shared in the society, as opposed to individual autonomy of values, is that the latter has a greater propensity for conflict between individuals with differing values. Durkheim’s theories were drawn from a study of Australian totemic tribes; therefore, it is necessary to explore and assess this, as his reasoning behind the effects of solidarity caused by religion. In an attempt to uncover the elementary forms of religious life, Durkheim looked to the aboriginal totemic tribes of Australia. He believed that these were the most similar to other religions, in terms of ‘finding a common principle underlying the practices and beliefs that unify them’ (Morrison, 2006, pg. 236). His aim was try to understand what material effects rites had on the common society. Such rites included the adherence of all members of the religious community to a set a rules or norms of practice towards the worshiping of the sacred totem. The ‘sacred’ refers to the aspects of belief or spirits, which are seen to be special and above the profane. The ‘profane’ on the other hand, refers to material objects, which do not have this distinguished...
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